Hymns play an important role in Catholic funeral masses, reaffirming the meaning of the service while allowing mourners to reflect and relate. Selecting Catholic funeral hymns for a funeral can seem daunting, since there are many options. This task is less overwhelming after an overview of mass requirements, and a look at some choices.
It is important to first determine the number of hymns to use. Most Catholic funerals include a hymn to open the service, a psalm after the first reading, a Communion hymn, and a hymn to end the service. Catholic hymns may be added for other events in the funeral mass. If the mass includes an offering, an additional hymn is added during the collection and presentation. Additional music may play as people arrive, or during the recessional after the service.
Psalms combine a sung response with reading. However, many Catholic hymns’ lyrics come from Psalm selections. Psalm 23 is a comforting choice for funerals. The responsorial version of this famous Psalm, beginning “The Lord is my shepherd...,” was sung at the funeral of Pope John Paul II. A beloved hymn, ‘Shepherd Me O God,’ often selected for funerals draws its lyrics and meaning from this Psalm.
Traditional Catholic Hymns
A traditional Catholic hymn is often based on a familiar prayer or Bible verse. Schubert’s timeless ‘Ave Maria’ uses the Hail Mary prayer as its lyrics. Another prayer often set to music is the ‘Prayer of St. Francis,’ which asks God for the chance to console and love in times of difficulty. Also Biblically inspired is ‘Here I Am Lord,’ which draws from Isaiah 6:8 and 1 Samuel 3. Many Protestant denominations embrace this song, despite its origins in the Catholic hymnal. Conversely, ‘Amazing Grace’ was penned by an eighteen-century Anglican clergyman inspired by his own dramatic conversion. This famous funeral hymn celebrates faith’s redemptive power. Redemption and suffering are central themes in the medieval ‘Ave Verum,’ often chosen for the Eucharist. ‘Panis Angelicus’ (bread of angels), also Eucharistic, originated as a medieval chant and is now one of the popular funeral hymns.
Catholic hymns focus on many facets of church teachings. Easter—and its message of redemption and faith beyond mortality—is arguably the most prevalent theme in funeral hymns. Some of the most well known Easter-related funeral hymns include ‘The Strife is O’er,’ ‘I Know That My Redeemer Lives,’ and ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today.’ Only during the season of Lent are these hymns considered unsuitable, as Lent is about preparation for Easter, not celebration. Hymns for Catholic funerals are not in short supply.
Resources for funeral hymns include Catholic hymnals that organize their contents by subject and make funeral hymns easy to find. Online resources are endless, if not always reliable. If selecting hymns becomes overwhelming, speak to a priest, a church music coordinator, or organist, as they are likely familiar with selecting Catholic hymns for a funeral mass and can offer guidance.